Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" / The Smiths

Watching Forgetting Sarah Marshall over the weekend, I caught this song faintly in the background as the lead character (hard to call him a hero) moped around his house after being dumped. An obvious soundtrack choice, but I wish it had been played up more; that adolescent self-pity vibrating through Morrissey's vocals completely pegged what was going on with that guy, and I've been humming the song ever since.

I missed the Smiths -- but then again, most of us in the States did. Face it, the Eighties were a strange musical limbo, with the great stuff (there was great stuff, I now know) floating around the ozone while records like Thriller and Like a Virgin and Kissing to Be Clever were repeatedly blasted at us. No wonder we sucked up the Police and Dire Straits like fresh water in the desert. If it hadn't been for that vacuum, maybe we wouldn't have had Springsteen to deal with today.

But coming to the Smiths late is better than never discovering them at all. While I dig Morrissey's more recent stuff too, the idiosyncracies of the Smiths really get me where I live. Being a Ray Davies fan, I'm not put off by Morrissey's fey vocals at all; in fact I love them. Few songwriters can get away with throwing rhymes out the window, but Morrissey pulls it off, maybe because he also doesn't care how many syllables are in a line. That quirky mix of Brechtian songspiele with a backbeat and Johnny Marr's catchy guitar riffs was genius.

Our singer's condition is something we can all secretly identify with: "I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour / But heaven knows I'm miserable now / I was looking for a job and then I found a job / And heaven knows I'm miserable now." None of the conventional cures really work for this guy. As the melody ricochets wearily between two notes, occasionally flipping up into a mournful falsetto, we're sucked into his passive-aggressive paralysis.

His general misanthropy kicks in too -- "In my life / Why do I give valuable time / To people who don't care if I live or die" (great self-pitying wail there) or "Why do I smile / At people who / I'd much rather kick in the eye" -- we all know how that feels. But how English is that knee-jerk politeness, not to mention all the resentful baggage it carries with it? His girlfriend is useless: "What she asked of me at the end of the day / Caligula would have blushed." That line cracks me up, especially given the drama queen flutter he gives "blushed." "Oh, you've been in the house too long, she said" -- I bet she did -- "And I naturally fled." Naturally. Really, he may feel sorry for himself, but I've got news for you, man, she's not the problem.

So what are we supposed to make of this guy? Morrissey sees how ridiculous he is, for sure, but he's not totally putting him down; there's some sneaky sympathy there too. (It's the same slippery perspective Ray Davies has been using for years.) We're free to see aspects of ourselves in his whiny despondency, or not. Whatever. It's better than a trip to the shrink, in my opinion, and a hell of lot more fun.

Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now sample


Franko6677 said...

I noticed this song in the film, too. I like the song a lot better than I liked the film. The main character's excessive self-pity annoyed me. Ironically, I am a big fan of the Smiths.

Great tune, and great write-up on it.

And oh yeah, I responded to your Twilley comment back at my site.

Uncle E said...

I was lucky enough to pick up the Smiths first album as soon as it was released in 1984. The dude at the record store said it was similiar to the wonderful Scottish band Orange Juice, so I snatched it up. I loved it and bought each subsequent release after. I don't think this song was on a proper Smiths album, was it? I was first introduced to it through Hatful Of Hollow, which was a kind of 'greatest hits' package (even though they'd only released one album by that point!) with b-sides and single only cuts.
The Queen is Dead remains my favorite of theirs, but the first album is a VERY close second.
Great post!

GE said...

Like your blog and your taste in music (mostly). So why the Bruce hating?

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks for the good words, GE.

As for Bruce...it's not so much Bruce I hate as the unassailable Boss phenomenon -- hordes of uncritical fans, sold-out arena shows, and the media's general slobbering reverence. It's the same problem I have with the Stones and the Who. While I like some of their music, I feel shut out by their rabid throngs of supporters who can't stand to have their rock gods criticized at all. Over time, that's hardened into a contrarian position. And of course, after trying to like him for several eyars, I've decided not to listen to anything new by him, so I may be missing opportunities to revise my opinion. (But really, that Seeger album sucked.)

Since his earlier days, don't you think Bruce has gotten a leetle self-important? And I believe his music lacks delicacy, subtlety, or range, which happen to be qualities I highly value. How many Springsteen tracks go on for 30 seconds longer than they have to, just so the chorus can be repeated two more times at maximum volume?

But hey, we've all got to have our blind spots. And otherwise I'm sure he's a lovely man...

GE said...

I can appreciate your feelings. In fact, I grew up in Jersey and hated Bruce thanks mostly to unassailable (and there unescapable) phenomenon. But after leaving the state, I found his music on my own terms and gained a new appreciation.

Julie said...

This song is a hoot. I love the whole album.